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In the Language of Literature, Torn Between English and Persian

02/13/11 By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Washington - Zohreh Ghahremani has two sets of tools for her work, and she says that the character of what she produces depends in part on which set she uses.

By training, Ghahremani is a pediatric dentist, a profession she pursued with probes, drills and mouth mirrors for 25 years. But her craft is writing - poetry, short stories and a newly published novel, Sky of Red Poppies - and her tools are her two primary languages, Persian and English. Like other Iranian-American writers, she says the differences between the languages are substantial, and those differences are obvious to her as she works with them.

"They are as different as different styles of painting. You see, you can have the same model and give it to an impressionist painter and give it to a classic painter, and you'll get two different images back," Ghahremani said from her home in Southern California. "That is why translation is much easier, let's say, from French to Persian and vice versa than it is English. And I have so far had the luxury of choosing which subjects would go better in which language."

Many Iranian-American writers count themselves as bilingual, but most choose one language or the other as their primary tool. Mehrnoosh Mazarei, who has published four books of short stories in Persian, has lived in the United States for a bit more than half of her life, having arrived in Southern California shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran at age 28. "I still don't feel like I'm fluent in English," she said. "I don't write directly to English, usually. I write in Farsi first and then translate it to English. ... And then I get some people to edit that, too."

It's not that Mazarei's English is flawed - far from it. "My mind is still thinking in Farsi, and as long as you think Farsi, it's going to be very hard for you to write English," she said.

It's only when she writes about everyday, contemporary life - the life she lives in English - that Mazarei usually finds her artistic voice in English, she said.

Ghahremani, who studied in London and moved to the United States in 1975, finds herself mostly on the other side of the linguistic line. Although her first book came out in Persian, "I realized soon that not only I was thinking in English and dreaming in English, but also, culturally, it was easier for me to express life as it is now in English. The past life, I can still express it in Persian," she said.

Her poetry, though, is more on the Persian side. "My Persian poetry is by far better than the English," she said.

Sheema Kalbasi, who has published two collections of poetry and who writes in both languages, said her choice can depend on the style she wants to use and the topic she needs to address.

"I find English a more precise language than Persian. Poetry thrives in vagueness and metaphor and so does the Persian language!" she said in an e-mail interview from her home near Washington.

The writers said the different literary customs of the two languages are important issues for them. Even as revolutionary as modern Persian poetry has been in setting aside strict adherence to the forms of classical Persian poetry, they said rhyme and poetic measure remain crucial in Persian verse. But Ghahremani, like Kalbasi, said Persian also gives the poet more freedom to speak in metaphor piled upon metaphor. Ghahremani said that when she does that in English conversation, her children, who do not speak Persian, look at her as if she is crazy.

Kalbasi, who in much of her poetry focuses on women's rights, said the choice of language also can put her in a more effective frame of mind. "I feel that in my Persian poems I am more aggressive about my objections to all the bonds that have suppressed us as individuals," she said. "When writing in English I feel that battle is already won and [there is] not much need to be too aggressive about it. We not only experience life in a particular body, in a particular age, and in a particular culture, but in the language we speak. What will it mean to describe in English how a woman condemned to stoning sees the final minutes of her life? What will it mean to find the right English word to describe how a being that cherished the life of a proud mom not too long ago can be destroyed so recklessly and so barbarically?"

The writers said the basic characteristics of a language - the variety of vowel sounds, for example, which will be a factor in how readily rhymes appear - are an issue, especially for poets, but are less important than the differences in the ways cultures use language.

Ghahremani said that's clear in the different ways one language can be used in different cultures. "I think that American English is a lot more expressive, a lot more emotional, than British English, and I've seen them both," she said. "Somehow, here, we've managed to take out the indifference from it and make it a more musical, more emotional language."

Persian is yet more musical and emotional than English, she added. "It is more emotional than a lot of languages. I see it closer to Italian and Spanish, especially to the Mexican Spanish," she said.

Mark Burns, a professor of comparative literature at Brigham Young University in Utah, said other writers have faced the problems of moving from one language to another. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Czeslaw Milosz, two Nobel Prize winners in literature, were immigrants in the United States but wrote in their native languages - Singer in Yiddish, Milosz in Polish - and then translated their works to English. Singer's prose style was more direct in English than in Yiddish, which Burns said would reflect essential characteristics of the languages: "ideas similar, perhaps, but with a very different feel and tone and connotations and rhythm," he said.

Poetry would present still greater differences, Burns said. "I do think that the language to a large degree opens up and closes down many possibilities as to what a poet can express or not express," he said. "It's not just the translatability of occasional words: It's the whole feel, tone, history, even the 'savings bank' of ideas themselves in each language. That said, 95 percent still carries across from one language to the other, but it is precisely that 5 percent that matters in literature and distinguishes it from ad copy or a computer instruction manual."

Kalbasi and Ghahremani each offered an example of a word that can have real meaning only within its cultural context. For Kalbasi, it was the Iranian code of manners tied up in one word, taarof. "It's too deeply and exclusively rooted in Persian culture and is thus meaningless in English," she said.

Ghahremani suggested a simpler word: pie. "Nobody knows what American pie means unless they are American," she said. "To the world, American pie is a dessert. To us here, it's a national symbol. It's our grandmother. It's a certain smell around the house. It's certain festivities. It's got to have a special shape and size. So American pie can be just said as a pie - 'OK, I had a pie.' But when you talk about your grandmother's apple pie, a whole world comes before you because that's part of our culture here. And it's the same with any culture."

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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